Office Hours Session Notes – Culture Scaling

It’s not the foosball table. 

Intentionally scaling culture is the secret weapon that separates truly great companies from the rest. Creating exceptional culture goes far beyond HR, and gone are the days of free snacks keeping employees happy and engaged. How values are lived – or not – has an impact across the entire company. We gathered three exceptional operators who have mastered the art, strategy, and storytelling of culture to share with our founders lessons learned – from the earliest days of company building through IPO and beyond. 

Office Hours are interactive, candid Q&A conversations and are not recorded. We capture the bottom line in a “Session Notes” format.

The Speakers:

  • Dini Mehta, Chief Revenue Officer, Lattice, has accomplished the seemingly impossible –  scaling a sales organization from 7 to 120 employees with almost no attrition while building revenue from $5M to $100M+ in less than 4 years. Was her college mascot! 
  • Tracy Williams, Chief People & Diversity Officer, New Relic, has transformed culture through a strategic partnership with the CEO. Is a sneakerhead and loves her Jordans. 
  • Nairi Tashjian Hourdajian, VP Communications, Content & Community Marketing, Figma, has been at the intersection of storytelling and culture for nearly a decade, from early days at Uber to Figma. In her next life will be a hip hop A&R exec. 

Culture means a lot of different things to lots of different people. What is culture and why does it matter? 

  • It’s the set of shared practices, norms, and how you make decisions
  • It’s why people feel engaged – it’s how you scale
  • Invest in your people and they’ll invest in you. People strategy is how you achieve business strategy. Culture eats strategy for lunch
  • If you’re not intentional, you’ll work really, really hard – or you’ll fail
  • Everyone in a company wants community, growth, and purpose 
  • Culture and values are like an OS for a company – when done well it brings and fosters efficiency. You’ll move faster

How to make values really lived? 

  • Build them into company kickoffs and all-hands 
  • Operationalize them: make them a part of the hiring process, review cycles, compensation objectives, etc. – if the operational side gets lost, values become just words on a page
  • Consistently talking about what’s important to you as a company aligns everyone on an ongoing basis 
  • Think about and balance what values mean externally, how they show up to customers and partners 
  • Values often sound like they could be for any company – make them unique and they’ll stick. Make sure people know what they mean and how they are lived 
  • Recognize and reward moments/people when the values are clearly lived – from micro-moments like praise when values are lived to peer reward systems

Culture building in a remote/hybrid world: 

  • All people managers need to be on the same page. Enable, empower, and coach
  • View culture as a product: what’s working, what’s not?
  • At first, we were all skeptical that you could have a “real” culture remotely, but it’s been a total 180. It’s about how work is part of your life and not just adding to your day-to-day
  • Create intentional moments to show who you are, and have some fun. Creative ways to connect and reward your team: company-wide week off in summer, a digital scavenger hunt, sharing a picture from your childhood – all ways to build real, human connection and have fun
  • Adopt a decision-making framework so it’s clear how new ideas can be surfaced. When you go from 150 to 600 employees in a year, it’s natural that the early folks have earned trust and new folks may not feel engaged yet. Example: SPADE really helps in an async environment
  • Create space for community conversations about what’s happening in the world – no agenda, just safe space. Exec team shows up and participates

How to balance culture and speed: hiring in hypergrowth

  • You have to build an org where you value both. It’s easy to say that you have to grow at all costs. But it’s a short term win and ultimately not the right thing for your metrics
  • Give people space to execute – sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. But it pays off – you’ll go faster in 6 months as a result
    • You have to have full alignment from the board to the exec team to the people managers – otherwise, it’s a recipe for failure
    • If you slow down in order to do things right, you’re not slowing down
  • The hiring process as you grow needs to include questions about values to see if there is alignment. One strategy: ask candidates to share stories that show how they embody a particular value
  • There’s no separate culture interview, it’s embedded into every interview
  • Intentionally focusing on hiring talent from diverse backgrounds Does. Not. Slow. You. Down. If you want diverse talent, you need to go to diverse channels for sourcing

How do you reinforce values during the onboarding process and in the first 90 days, especially when 75% of the company has been hired in recent months?

  • Find ways to constantly and creatively reaffirm your values – a welcome package with stickers, notebooks, etc. Onboarding buddy has a script to talk about them and what they mean at work. Show new people stories and examples in a sizzle reel pulled from All Hands and Off Site meetings
  • New Hire welcome meetings: the CEO should talk about the values, then people will understand how important they are to the organization from Day 1

Hiring a sales org: 

  • Sales orgs are hard – a lot of practices are based on scarcity and fear-based incentives. What’s the org you want to work for? You don’t have to do it the way others have done it 
  • You as leaders own this – when it comes to culture and values you want sales folks to be aligned to you. Don’t be afraid to call it out like you see it – do not let moments of misalignment pass. Don’t compromise. You can’t make someone mission-aligned
  • It’s common to think of sales people as mercenaries not missionaries. That’s why you see such high attrition, but don’t view sales people as quarter-driving machines
  • You have to walk the walk as a leadership team. If a deal is good for sales but not for the company, walk away

On culture add vs. culture fit:

  • Hire with intention. If you don’t want everyone to be the same and think the same, then you have to hire people who may not come from the same background or the same friend circle
  • Unconscious bias seeps in. What does a “fit” mean? Think about whether they align to your values 
  • You also can’t just throw different people together and assume everyone will get along and it’ll all work out – people need to understand context and have a safe space to talk about differences. Create space for people to disagree
  • Hire for competencies you know you’re going to need way before you need them, that’s what builds the engine 
  • The important work starts after you hire someone, so make sure people are included and feel like they belong
  • Make your intentions as a leader known – repetition is key. If you say it three times a week, it’ll stick maybe 70% of the time. Have leaders truly understand the CEO/founder’s individual, real values – it takes time
We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are a key part of building truly great companies. Learn more on our website or on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Operator Spotlight: Waymo co-CEO and Intuit board member Tekedra Mawakana

“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them – operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next. 

This month we spoke with Tekedra Mawakana. She’s co-CEO at autonomous driving technology company Waymo (an Alphabet subsidiary), board director at Intuit, as well as an advisor to Boom Supersonic and — luckily for us — Operator Collective

Last year, you stepped into the co-CEO role at Waymo. There are lots of opinions about the role and title what is your thinking and approach? How do you make it work? 

TEKEDRA: The question about co-leadership is really fair. In many circumstances I can understand why it would be very difficult, and unfamiliar. However, my co-CEO, Dmitri Dolgov, and I have worked closely together for years now and bring very complementary skills to the table. Dmitri has been working on this engineering challenge his whole career. Thus, he focuses on the development of the Waymo Driver, and I focus on how to commercialize and deploy the tech, as well as build trust with the communities in which we operate and whom we serve. We jointly consider the best strategy and rollout, and strengthen our Waymo team and culture along the way. It’s been a great partnership and I feel very honored to lead the company of Waymonauts alongside him. 

Waymo is tackling a world-changing opportunity. It’s big and hard not the kind of thing that happens overnight! How do you think about creating a long-term roadmap for something like employee retention? How do you know when to stay the course, or when to adapt?

TEKEDRA: It’s definitely a marathon and not a sprint. We’ve been at this for over a decade now, have tested in more than 25 cities and driven more than 20 million miles on public roads. We understand deeply how challenging it is to introduce autonomous driving technology to the public and are committed to progressing safely as we continue to deploy our tech step-by-step. When it comes to our employees, it’s a really fantastic team of over 2,000 people who want to make a difference in the world and are here because they believe in the mission and the impact that this technology can have over the long-term.  

We’ve had the opportunity to bring in professionals from all over the world, with incredibly diverse expertise and points of view. They have come together to provide guidance for any number of different areas of our fully autonomous service and the technology behind it, including regarding key deployment decisions. Doing something like this that hasn’t been done before requires a lot of humility and tremendous openness around learning. And so that is how I approach things. I learn, listen, and make a decision. That learning journey is really core to how we approach things here at Waymo. 

Global policy issues can make or break tech companies. How could the next generation of tech giants benefit from bringing in operators with deep experience navigating complex legal and regulatory situations?  

TEKEDRA: One of the most interesting aspects of mission-driven tech is the broad opportunity for impact, and with expansive impact there will likely be questions about regulations. For that reason, I really hope new entrants will always consider how to apply policy, legal and regulatory expertise at the start to help protect investments, create industry norms, and ultimately deliver on the promise of the tech. 

At Waymo, we work with regulators and policymakers at every level of government to help ensure understanding of our fully autonomous driving technology. We consider Waymo to be an industry leader in this regard, in terms of transparency and engagement with governments. I’m really proud of the work of our team to advance our mission and help shape the future!

Describe a pivotal moment in your career that was truly defining for you — an opportunity that changed your life or a moment where you recognized defeat and changed course.

TEKEDRA: My decision to join Waymo was exciting to me because it was a chance to build from the ground up. I always loved being in big tech companies — I navigated them well for career success and personal enjoyment. But after a while, I really wanted to use my skills as a builder. Since joining Waymo, I have had the challenges of my career. From helping ensure our first commercial service was successfully launched to helping shape the type of company culture we want, it’s all about building with great intention, clear priorities and humility in leadership. 

What is one big lesson you’ve  learned from your career path? 

TEKEDRA: For more than two decades, I advised some of the best-known consumer technology companies working on advancing their business interests around the world.  Early in my career, I focused on transactions within the regulated technology and telecom industries, and rose up to advise CEOs navigating growth and turnaround strategies. Prior to Waymo, I led global teams at eBay, Yahoo, AOL and Startec Global Communications and I started my career at the DC-based law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP.  When I think about my career path, it’s been anything but linear. A lesson I embraced early on is that often the best move for my career has been to take a role that requires a bit of a step back in order to move forward, and that it’s actually quite common for so many of us to see our careers take that kind of trajectory. 

What’s your secret super power?

TEKEDRA: My secret power has always been my willingness to speak up. It sounds easy, but it actually can be really challenging, especially when you look around the table (or video conference as the case has been through the pandemic) and find yourself to — for example — be the only woman present. While I may need to take a deep breath in sometimes before I speak up, once I start to speak, my super power grows as I am reminded of the importance of ensuring my voice is heard.

What’s one thing you’ve done successfully, personally or professionally, to empower the next generation of underrepresented leaders? What’s one thing you want to take on next?

TEKEDRA: Through my life and career I’ve learned the importance of giving back. I realized that — at a very early and important stage in my career — people along the way took a special interest in me, even though they were not mentors and coaches. This inspired me to start something years ago I call “Givebacks.” It’s a simple thing:- I committed to connecting with three women and people of color each quarter who were looking for guidance, had a question (typically about breaking into tech), or just were looking to build their network. We meet for coffee or lunch or video call, and each time I’m reminded of the importance of accessible leaders. If I am seen as an example to another young woman, or another person of color, of what they are capable of, I’m honored. 

I’ve also been able to use my space in tech to give back through angel investing and joining a women-led fund, like Operator Collective (!!!), which is dedicated to driving more diversity among both women and people of color in venture.

We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are a key part of building truly great companies. Learn more on our website or on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Meet 9 amazing women shaking up tech & venture

Women’s History Month serves as a great opportunity to celebrate amazing trail-blazing women. It’s also a stark reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done to reach gender equity in our lifetime. Women stand to lose $400,000 over a 40-year career based on today’s wage gap, and the gap gets significantly wider for women of color. 

We’re thrilled to recognize some of the most successful, respected executives in the tech industry — who also happen to be women. We’re honored that the leaders below have joined us as operator limited partners (LPs) and/or portfolio company (PortCo) founders on our mission, along with so many others (it was challenging to narrow this list to single digits!). Each of these women contribute greatly to the Collective Venture Model, which is all about bringing together founders, operators, and investors from diverse backgrounds to supercharge rising companies and create mutual value. 

Together, we’re rebuilding venture from the ground up, with the world’s best operators at the forefront, including:

Bonney Pelley
New Relic Senior Vice President of Strategy & Operations

At New Relic, Bonney has held several product and business operations roles over the past 6+ years, helping the company achieve nearly 5x revenue growth post-IPO. She’s known for building high-performing teams that excel at turning strategy into execution because they are connected to company goals, driven to make an impact, and have fun along the way. 

Claire Hough
Carbon Health Chief Technology Officer

A 25-year technology industry veteran, Claire has helped several startups (including one of her own) grow and scale their teams — while committing to diversity, equity, inclusion, and servant leadership. After leading engineering teams at Netscape, Napster, Udemy, and others, she recently joined Carbon Health to help democratize healthcare through technology. Claire is an active mentor for engineering managers and product managers, and participates in the Persistence community for women leaders across tech.

Erica Ruliffson Schultz (@efr_schultz)
Confluent President of Field Operations

Erica is consistently recognized by her peers as running the most effective revenue organization and engine in enterprise software. She has a deep understanding of how to scale through all types of change, having experienced it at Confluent, New Relic, and Oracle. She creates a culture of respect, authenticity, transparency, inclusion, and accountability, and is a great advocate for women in tech. We are extremely lucky to have her on our own board of advisors, helping position Operator Collective portfolio companies for success.

Jenn Knight
AgentSync Co-Founder & Chief Technology Officer

Jenn was one of the very few female developers specializing in Salesforce when she joined LinkedIn as the company’s first Salesforce engineer. She went on to lead technical teams at Dropbox and Stripe before co-founding insurtech unicorn AgentSync. There, she has focused on building a diverse team since day one (her current engineering org is majority female) because she fundamentally believes teams, products, and companies are all better when there’s a diversity of voices, thoughts, opinions, and perspectives shaping them.

Michelle Grover (@Jcmish)
Former Twilio Chief Information Officer

As Twilio’s first CIO, Michelle helped the company uplevel its technology systems and processes to drive innovation and growth — making her one of Insider’s 100 People Transforming Business. She also has a deep-seeded passion for fostering diversity and inclusion in tech leadership, and serves an advisor to Techtonica, a nonprofit that helps guide women and non-binary individuals into the technology industry. Previously, she helped grow TripIt from a 25-person startup to a key product for SAP Concur, where she became senior vice president of software development.

Meghan Noel
Amplitude Global Vice President & Head of PreSales

Meghan has led sales, presales, solution sales, marketing, product, and customer success teams at digital, SaaS, and cloud businesses for over 25 years. She drives organizations to outperform revenue expectations while maintaining focus on product strategy, customer value, and the customer experience. Prior to joining Amplitude, Meghan held a variety of leadership roles at SAP Concur over the course of her 12 years there, including senior vice president of global SMB presales and general manager of digital media solutions.

Melanie Fellay (@melfellay)
Spekit CEO & Co-Founder 

Melanie is a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree who, along with her awesome co-founder, Zari Zahra, is changing the way companies enable employees to master their tech stacks, unlocking exponential increases in productivity. She also takes her role as one of the too-few female entrepreneurs in tech very seriously. In Melanie’s own words: “We need more women in leadership, we need more women breaking glass ceilings, we need more women starting companies and to do that, we need more young women believing that they CAN and SHOULD shoot for the moon.” That’s exactly what she herself is doing, as evidenced by Operator Collective portfolio company Spekit’s meteoric growth

Rashida Hodge (@RashidaHodge)
Microsoft Vice President of Azure Data & AI Customer Success

Rashida is a powerful advocate for women and people of color in tech and investing. She’s a big believer in authenticity and bringing personal nuance to your work, as well as in the value of strong communities and developing next-generation leaders. Rashida is a board member at Girls Inc., and founder of the Real Hope for NextGen Engineers Endowment at her alma mater, North Carolina State University — in addition to being one of Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 in Technology

Magdalena Yesil (@MagdalenaYesil)
Informed Executive Chair & Broadway Angels Founder

Last, but light-years from least, Magdalena is an immigrant, serial entrepreneur, board member, author, and “Alpha Girl” who’s best known as the first investor and a founding board member of Salesforce. She was an early pioneer in the commercialization of the Internet and her latest startup, Informed, is using AI to change the way the financial industry processes consumer applications. Magdalena founded Broadway Angels, a group of female venture capitalists and angel investors, and we are endlessly grateful for her continued support on Operator Collective’s investment advisory committee.

 

These values-aligned women are part of the reason we’ve been able to create a multiplier effect in our community and grow our investment network by 50% in just the last year. In fact, of the referrals we’ve received to companies with one or more female founders, almost three-quarters were made by women. It’s a testament to what happens when you intentionally expand and diversify your investor list, especially in an industry where less than 2% of enterprise software funding goes to companies with at least one female founder.

We can’t wait to see where the Collective Venture Model takes our community next.

In Operator Collective's portfolio, 48% of companies have a female founder, 38% a female CEO, 30% a female tech exec, and 20% all-female founders.
Operator Collective Portfolio Companies through 2021
We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are keys to building truly great companies. Learn more on our website or by connecting with us on Twitter and LinkedIn.